Laying the Groundwork

With Internet connections and multimedia learning strategies, high-tech classrooms are revolutionizing education. Yet, in bringing this revolution to existing school facilities, telecommunications design is too often being shortchanged.

This is surprising because the motivation for so many retrofits is to accommodate new technological tools-and because so much money is at stake. Too many schools and universities have learned the lesson the hard way: if they do not treat telecommunications as the most essential element in retrofit planning and design, they can end up with skewed construction schedules, hefty change-order bills and malfunctioning equipment.

What can school officials do to prevent design and construction errors that may cost their institutions thousands, or in rare cases, even millions of dollars? Here are a few guidelines.

Qualified installers Cables are the nerves of a data/voice system. Like human nerves, telecommunications cables are fragile. High-grade copper (categories 5e and 6) and fiber-optic telecom cables don't take well to being bent, kinked or frayed. Each kind of cable has a specific "geometry." If it is bent at too sharp an angle over too short a distance, its performance will suffer. Because requirements differ from one cable to another, manufacturers of cabling systems typically offer training and certification in the installation of their particular cables.

To reduce the possibility that something might go wrong during cable installation, school technology directors-and the telecommunications engineering consultants a school or university retains to design the voice/data and audiovisual aspects of the retrofit-must exercise an iron hand. Insist that a cable installation contractor provide evidence of certification in the specific cables being installed.

That's only the first step, however. Too often, contractors will happily comply with this demand and produce a certificate that shows that a particular employee is capable of installing the cable. But the certificate is meaningless if the employee never appears at your facility. You should insist that the certified employee is on site and leading the team installing the cable.

Unfortunately, certification in itself is not a guarantee that the installation will be done properly. Experience shows that even certified installers can make errors. The only reliable safeguard is for your telecommunications consultant to conduct inspections during installation. These inspections shouldn't be pro forma-they may involve telecom engineers sifting through bundles of pulled cable to make sure that none of the individual cables is damaged.

If you do not detect and immediately correct cable-installation mistakes, it can seriously disrupt a construction schedule and cause a project to miss deadlines and go over budget. If the installation team has moved on to another job when the damage is discovered, the contractor may not have workers available to fix the problem immediately.

Insist on frequent inspections by the telecommunications consultant during the retrofit construction period-at least five or six inspections during a typical job. To perform this duty effectively, the telecom consultant must be kept up-to-date. For example, when workers are scheduled to pour a concrete floor slab where conduits and boxes are to be embedded, the consultant must know about this ahead of time. That way, a telecom engineer can go to the site at least a day before and make sure that the components put in place by the electrical contractor match specifications.

Working together Coordinating various engineering aspects of a retrofit-electrical, telecommunications, mechanical and plumbing-is essential. Such coordination is made easier if a single, multidisciplinary consulting engineering firm is designing the project. That's often not the case, and even when it is, mishaps can occur if there is not a concerted effort to ensure coordination.

The high-voltage circuitry that carries electrical power and the low-voltage cables that carry voice/data and audiovisual transmissions do not always make the most friendly of companions. Since electrical and telecom system components must often share the same or adjacent pathways, it is vital that an electrical-systems design obey telecom system requirements and that all specified components-conduits, boxes, the surface-mounted raceways often used to deliver power and voice/data wiring-conform to the telecom system's needs.

To make sure that the power system does not inadvertently produce disastrous consequences for the school's voice/data network, you must structure the design process to ensure that the telecommunications consultant has an opportunity to review electrical-system drawings at every stage. (If an architect is leading the retrofit design team, the architect can make sure this happens; if no architect is involved, the responsibility should fall to a school's facility or technology director.) This review should include the construction phase of the project. For example, to make sure that all devices are properly rated, the telecom engineer should have final say over any substitutions of electrical system components suggested by the electrical contractor.

Losing space School officials don't need to be told that space is at a premium in their buildings. High-tech retrofits can produce thorny problems-the space and adjacency requirements of voice/data networks and their component equipment, such as main distribution frames and intermediate distribution frames (MDFs and IDFs), are so unforgiving.

Placing certain pieces of network equipment too near an electrical transformer is a no-no, since electromagnetic interference can affect a computer network in unpredictable ways. Sticking an IDF inside a janitorial closet is an inordinately risky space-saving "solution," because splashes from the slop sink or spillage of a corrosive chemical might ruin the electronics.

Hanging cables beneath water pipes is dangerous; pipes do tend to spring leaks. Situating IDFs inside locked cabinets in classrooms is an invitation to vandalism. Putting certain kinds of heat-generating telecommunications equipment in restricted spaces without adequate ventilation or without considering air-conditioning needs can cause that equipment to break down-and may void product warranties.

To spot potential conflicts before designs are completed, a telecommunications consultant should review mechanical and plumbing system drawings as they evolve. The consultant also should understand the existing mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems and be aware of the locations of equipment and system components that will not be replaced during the retrofit. That said, the telecom engineer should be willing to compromise and adjust voice/data network and audiovisual system design to accommodate other systems' space needs.

Space shortages can easily lead to turf battles, so it's important that building administrators and faculty members be informed about how retrofits will affect space allocation. Solicit their opinions as the design goes forward. On many retrofits, the job of informing and seeking input from members of the school community belongs to the architect; on projects where there is no architect, it's a good idea to assign this task to the facility or technology director, or another staff member.

Bad feelings, as well as space problems, can result if teachers return to their revamped facility to discover that the closet they had been using for storage is now occupied by an MDF. Don't let that happen without warning. Seek a solution that will respect the school's space needs.

Thinking ahead A high-tech retrofit is expensive, time-consuming and disruptive-not something that a school or university will want to do repeatedly at a given building. So it makes good sense to think ahead. Consider potential technological upgrades and build in pathways to accommodate additional systems-even where it's unlikely that those new systems will be added for years. Among the kinds of pathways that might be installed:

-Service entrance pathways that will permit hookup to a high-speed inter-building fiber-optic network (either a self-owned network or one that is piggybacked onto a local cable TV or telephone provider's network).

-Pathways and spaces to accommodate wireless transmitting devices, and the hardware and electrical power that support them. Since construction work is cheaper when performed "in bulk," you will not only avoid future disruptions by having this work done now, but you also will save on per-unit construction costs.

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